By Andrew Herd (26 June 2000)
R4D is one of the most characterful and attractive panels ever designed for Flight Simulator, and it isn't surprising that it has a devoted band of followers - many of whom emailed me after I reviewed Dai Griffiths' SD3-60 panel saying "How could you dare to mention another panel in the same breath as R4D?" I had to laugh, because I know what they mean. The panel and plane combination which make up the R4D package capture the spirit of the DC3 so completely that they really ought to come with a set of grease-stained flight overalls and a can of blue smoke. My father, who flew DC3s in his time, says the only thing that is missing from the package is the way everything vibrated up and down in the original. If you don't fall in love with R4D in the interval between hearing the cockpit door slam shut behind you (really) to the moment the P&Ws 1830s choke, splutter and growl into life, then you ain't got no soul.
The DC3 freeware project had its origins last year in a collaboration between Roy Chaffin, Bill Rambow, and Jan Visser. Since then it has been through many changes and it is now available for Flight Simulator 2000 in version 4. The package includes an aircraft and a panel; an earlier version of the aircraft has been reviewed elsewhere, and while the current aircraft is completely new, I am going to concentrate on the panel. The package is an attempt to recreate a restored US Navy Air Transport Service DC3 belonging to the Mid Atlantic Air Museum (www.maam.org). This particular Gooney Bird originally served as an Admiral's transport, and until last year it still did the workhorse tasks it was designed for all those years ago, hauling museum staff and equipment around the US. The trouble is that the museum needs two new engines, one of which is for R4D, and although this package is freeware, the authors encourage anyone who uses it to buy the CD version, each copy of which will help to raise money towards the $94,000 needed for a new pair of engines. The CD comes with a self-installer and is packed with extras including the new version 3.5 for FS98, three complete DC3 manuals, footage of the aircraft in flight and hundreds of photos of the interior of the plane. At only $25 can you refuse? (Link to the CD is http://www.avialantic.com/shop/entrypage.htm)
The R4D comes as two files, WJRDC34A.ZIP and WJRDC34B.ZIP. There are also a patch available, that corrects various minor problems (R4DV4PA2.EXE). While there is no automatic installation routine, getting the package set up is relatively easy; I just decompressed the files into an empty directory, moved the automatically created aircraft directory into \FS2000_aircraft and unzipped the gauges into \gauges. There are also two situation files which need to be unzipped into the \pilots directory - these create a slightly confusingly named 'startup situation' which puts the aircraft on the runway with magnetos enabled and the engines running. If you start with this situation, the engines can be shut down and started up using the proper sequence.
The first time you fly the DC3, it is probably better to select the aircraft through the Flight Simulator menu system, as the panel is complicated and it is better to do things the easy way until you are familiar with the controls. When the panel loads, you are presented with a colorful banner which offers the choice between flying the aircraft from the left or right hand seats - clicking on the appropriate icon loads your preference. If you change your mind, a hotspot on the panel lets you swap seats. Jump in the seat and scan the instruments - there isn't a single default gauge here and every single one is as faithful a reproduction of the original as it is possible to make. Just to give you an idea how much work has been involved, Bill and Roy repainted and reprogrammed every single one of the gauges on the panel for version 4 alone, and this was without the Microsoft SDK, which hadn't been released at that stage. The result is just beautiful, there is no other word for it.
The day time panel is one of the most visually impressive ever designed for Flight Simulator, but the night time panel is out of this world, with the instruments glowing in the subtle light of the lamps. Not only does the panel look good, but every single switch, gauge and lever works independently, right down to the photoreal quadrant (if all 'photoreal' panels were worked up like this, it wouldn't be such a term of abuse) and the elevator trim wheel. The distinctive bent prop pitch, throttle and mixture levers can be controlled individually or together, and there are even hot spots for the carb heat on the quadrant, all of which is programmed as a single gauge, an almost unbelievable feat. There are full check lists and in a nice touch, the V speeds are given on the panel card, which can be zoomed with a single click. The check lists were adapted from the USAF 1944 C-47 pilot's training manual, and they can be used to fly the aircraft, although a few of the items are redundant because either the panel of Flight Simulator doesn't support some functions.
Getting the aircraft off the ground is a real experience. It is possible to go through all the procedures necessary to start the engines and get the machine ready for take-off, which is where your troubles really begin. As you can tell from the illustration, the view is just a little bit restricted before the DC3 gets up to speed and the odds of bending the aircraft by running over a parked Cessna are too high for comfort. Try and resist the urge to stand up and look over the top of the panel - you can cheat by hitting W, or keep hitting shift-enter until the panel pans down enough for you to have some kind of forward view. At 85 knots, ease the old lady off the runway and think about raising the landing gear, which comes up with a satisfying asymmetric double thump. Then, once you have got everything under control, it is time to look at the autopilot. This panel has no less than two: a 1940's vintage Sperry mark III, which was originally coded by Arne Bartels and appears here reprogrammed by Roy, with graphics by Bill; and a more functional modern autopilot, adapted from an instrument belonging to a Beech G-18s (this one is for wimps only). Fortunately the Sperry has its own integrated help file which can be called up by clicking on the left side of the gauge. If you use the Sperry (and you should, if you want to get the most from this panel) then have patience with it. It is one of the earliest autopilots ever made and it takes a lot of getting used to, as it controls heading, bank and pitch only - no automatic routing from intersection to intersection with this one! Arne's programming is insanely good; you can even set the sensitivity of the autopilot through working speed valves.
Descent is where you get the payback for the lousy view when you are taxiing; you just pull the props back to 2000 rpm, reduce manifold pressure to 23 inches, set the mixtures to autorich, drop the gear and maintain 125 knots while you enjoy the beautiful view. The extreme detail on this panel means that it really needs to be run at 1024x768 or higher and I don't think it would be easy to use on anything less than a 17" monitor. I have to confess that Bill and Roy's package was one of the major reasons why I went out and bought a 19" Sony monitor and I'm glad I did, because it looks great.
I don't have any major criticisms to make. Even the virtual cockpit looks good, based as it is on pictures taken from the real aircraft, but despite Bill's graphics and Roy's programming, it still takes too long to load. Roll on FS2002 and the Pentium IV. One day, all panels will be like this.
- Great panel, very atmospheric
- Good frame rates
- Neat switch from left to right hand seat
Download the Douglas R4D-6.